In the context of revolution
A revolution is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time.Aristotle described two types of political revolution:...

ary struggle, vanguardism is a strategy whereby an organization (usually a vanguard party
Vanguard party
A vanguard party is a political party at the forefront of a mass action, movement, or revolution. The idea of a vanguard party has its origins in the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels...

, though not always) attempts to place itself at the center of the movement, and steer it in a direction consistent with its ideology.


Lenin popularized political vanguardism as conceptualized by Karl Kautsky
Karl Kautsky
Karl Johann Kautsky was a Czech-German philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theoretician. Kautsky was recognized as among the most authoritative promulgators of Orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 until the coming of World War I in 1914 and was called by some the "Pope of...

, detailing his thoughts in one of his earlier works, What is to be done?
What is to be Done?
What to do? Burning Questions of Our Movement is a political pamphlet written by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in 1901 and published in 1902...

. Lenin argued that Marxism's
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

 complexity and the hostility of the establishment (the bourgeois state or, in the case of Imperial Russia, the feudal
Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries, which, broadly defined, was a system for ordering society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.Although derived from the...

 state) required a close-knit group of individuals — the vanguard — to safeguard the revolutionary ideology. While Lenin allegedly wished for a revolutionary organization akin to his contemporary Social Democratic Party
Social Democratic Party of Germany
The Social Democratic Party of Germany is a social-democratic political party in Germany...

, which was open to the public and more democratic in organization, the Russian autocracy prevented this.

Leninists argue that Lenin's ideal vanguard party would be one where membership is completely open: "The members of the Party are they who accept the principles of the Party programme and render the Party all possible support." This party could, in theory, be completely transparent: the "entire political arena is as open to the public view as is a theater stage to the audience." A party that supposedly implemented democracy to such an extent that "the general control (in the literal sense of the term) exercised over every act of a party man in the political field brings into existence an automatically operating mechanism which produces what in biology is called the “survival of the fittest”." This party would be completely open to the public eye as it conducted its business which would mainly consist of educating the proletariat to remove the false consciousness that had been instilled in them.

In its first phase, the vanguard party would exist for two reasons. Firstly, it would protect Marxism from outside corruption from other ideas as well as advance its concepts. And secondly, it would educate the proletariat
The proletariat is a term used to identify a lower social class, usually the working class; a member of such a class is proletarian...

 class in Marxism in order to cleanse them of their false individual consciousness and instill the revolutionary class consciousness
Class consciousness
Class consciousness is consciousness of one's social class or economic rank in society. From the perspective of Marxist theory, it refers to the self-awareness, or lack thereof, of a particular class; its capacity to act in its own rational interests; or its awareness of the historical tasks...

 in them.
If the vanguard is successful in this lofty goal, on the eve of revolution the entirety of the working class population would be enlightened, Marxist revolutionaries. Furthermore a great number of them, namely their most intelligent members, would belong to the vanguard's inner circle as professional revolutionaries
Professional revolutionaries
The concept of professional revolutionaries, alternatively called cadre, is in origin a Leninist concept used to describe a body of devoted communists who spend the majority of their free time organizing their party toward a mass revolutionary party capable of leading a workers' revolution...

. Thus the organization would quickly include the entire working class.

Once the proletariat gained class consciousness and thus was prepared to revolt against the ruling classes, the vanguard party would serve another purpose. The party would coordinate the proletariat through its revolution by acting as a military command hub of sorts. This is, according to Leninists, a vital function as mass revolutions can sometimes be easily crushed by the disciplined military of the ruling classes. The vanguards would serve as commanders of the revolt, chosen to their positions by "democratic natural selection".

In Lenin's view, after the revolution the working class would implement the dictatorship of the proletariat
Dictatorship of the proletariat
In Marxist socio-political thought, the dictatorship of the proletariat refers to a socialist state in which the proletariat, or the working class, have control of political power. The term, coined by Joseph Weydemeyer, was adopted by the founders of Marxism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in the...

 to rule the new worker's state through the first phase of communism, socialism. Here it can be said that the vanguard disappears, as all of society now consists of revolutionaries.

Implementation in Imperial Russia

Because of Russia's strong autocratic state, the vanguard party had to be implemented differently. It was, by necessity, a highly secretive organization. Its members would print and distribute illegal pamphlets and newspapers (for the above-mentioned alleged purpose of educating the masses), rarely would they sleep in the same bed twice. Members had to be skilled at evading the Czar's secret police as well as being knowledgeable Marxists.

Despite these troubles the Russian Bolsheviks were eventually successful in overthrowing the imperial government but only after countless cases of them being exiled, imprisoned and executed.

Current use

Vanguardism continues to be used as a political strategy by Leninist
In Marxist philosophy, Leninism is the body of political theory for the democratic organisation of a revolutionary vanguard party, and the achievement of a direct-democracy dictatorship of the proletariat, as political prelude to the establishment of socialism...

 parties of just about all varieties

Although anarchists
Anarchism is generally defined as the political philosophy which holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, or alternatively as opposing authority in the conduct of human relations...

 and radical libertarians
Libertarian socialism
Libertarian socialism is a group of political philosophies that promote a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, stateless society without private property in the means of production...

 reject party vanguardism in principle as inherently authoritarian, the practices of some anarchist groups have been criticized by their peers for constituting vanguardism of the intellectual, if not organizational, variety. Vanguardism is in fact an intrinsic element of anarcho-syndicalism
Anarcho-syndicalism is a branch of anarchism which focuses on the labour movement. The word syndicalism comes from the French word syndicat which means trade union , from the Latin word syndicus which in turn comes from the Greek word σύνδικος which means caretaker of an issue...

 and revolutionary syndicalism. Theorists such as Georges Sorel
Georges Sorel
Georges Eugène Sorel was a French philosopher and theorist of revolutionary syndicalism. His notion of the power of myth in people's lives inspired Marxists and Fascists. It is, together with his defense of violence, the contribution for which he is most often remembered. Oron J...

 and vanguard groups such as the Spanish Federación Anarquista Ibérica
Federación Anarquista Ibérica
The Federación Anarquista Ibérica is a Spanish organization of anarchist militants active within affinity groups inside the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo trade union. It is often abbreviated as CNT-FAI because of the close relationship between the two organizations...

 viewed the ordinary worker as being too complacent to revolt spontaneously, due to his having been 'brainwashed' by capitalism and reformism, and it was thus seen to be the duty of the 'enlightened' anarchist to prepare a revolutionary situation in which spontaneous mass rebellion could erupt. At times, this even led to an ostensibly elitist anarchism: the French CGT
Confédération générale du travail
The General Confederation of Labour is a national trade union center, the first of the five major French confederations of trade unions.It is the largest in terms of votes , and second largest in terms of membership numbers.Its membership decreased to 650,000 members in 1995-96 The General...

's reformist majority was excluded from input in the pivotal 1906 Amiens Congress, as the Union's anarchosyndicalist leaders considered moderate workers to be unqualified to decide policy for a Union whose direction was to be revolutionary and apolitical.

Vanguardism may more generally refer to cooperation between avant-garde
Avant-garde means "advance guard" or "vanguard". The adjective form is used in English to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics....

 individuals advancing in any field. Innovative writers and artists are often described as being in the vanguard in development of new forms and styles of art.

Further reading

  • Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Theory & History of Literature Series. 135 pages. University of Minnesota
    University of Minnesota
    The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is a public research university located in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, United States. It is the oldest and largest part of the University of Minnesota system and has the fourth-largest main campus student body in the United States, with 52,557...

     Press, February 1, 1984. ISBN 0-8166-1068-1.
  • Forster, Merlin H. and K. David Jackson, compilers. Vanguardism in Latin American Literature : An Annotated Bibliographic Guide. Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature
    World literature
    World literature refers to literature from all over the world, including African literature, American literature, Arabic literature, Asian literature, Australasian literature, Caribbean Literature, English literature, European literature, Indian literature, Latin American literature, Persian...

     Series. 232 pages. Greenwood Press, May 23, 1990. ISBN 0-313-24861-3.

Maerhofer, John. 2009. Rethinking the Vanguard: Aesthetic and Political Positions in the Modernist Debate, 1917-1962. New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Press. ISBN 1443811351

  • Vladimir Lenin What is to be done?
  • Bakunin, Mikhail
    Mikhail Bakunin
    Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin was a well-known Russian revolutionary and theorist of collectivist anarchism. He has also often been called the father of anarchist theory in general. Bakunin grew up near Moscow, where he moved to study philosophy and began to read the French Encyclopedists,...

    . "Letter to Albert Richard". August 1870. Reprinted in Bakunin on Anarchy, translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff
    Sam Dolgoff
    Sam Dolgoff was an American anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist.Dolgoff was born in the shtetl of Ostrovno in Vitebsk, Russia, moving as a child to New York City in 1905 or 1906, where he lived in the Bronx and in Manhattan's Lower East Side where he died...

    . A. A. Knopf, 1st edition, 1972. ISBN 0-394-41601-5. Retrieved May 17, 2005.
  • Mandel, Ernest
    Ernest Mandel
    Ernest Ezra Mandel, also known by various pseudonyms such as Ernest Germain, Pierre Gousset, Henri Vallin, Walter , was a revolutionary Marxist theorist.-Life:...

    . "Trotsky’s conception of self-organisation and the vanguard party". Originally published in French in Quatrième Internationale, No.36, pp. 35-49. November 1989. Translated by Mike Murray, marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive. Retrieved May 24, 2005.
  • Mitchell, Roxanne and Frank Weiss. Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type? Against the Ultra-Left Line. Publisher: United Labor Press. 1977. Retrieved May 25, 2005.
  • Slaughter, Cliff. "What is Revolutionary Leadership?". Labour Review. Socialist Labor League. 1964?. Retrieved May 17, 2005.

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